After 20 years in the musical industry, today is Kim So-hyun's youngest day

Musical actor Kim So-hyun [KIM HYUN-DONG]

After twenty years in the musical industry and playing the same character 400 times, you'd expect that an actor would have grown tired of the routine, but for 46-year-old actor Kim So-hyun, musicals have always been the love of her life and playing the role of Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Phantom” has helped her find herself when struggling in difficult times.

“I thought that the time I played ‘Phantom’ in 2016 would be the last,” Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. Kim will be playing the role of Christine for the first time in five years at the Charlotte Theater in southern Seoul for “Phantom” from March 17 to June 27.

“Phantom” is a musical based on Gaston Leroux's “The Phantom of the Opera” (1910) which places the focus on the Phantom and his past. Kim has starred in “The Phantom of the Opera” 350 times and “Phantom” 50 times, earning her the title of the actor who has played Christine the most in Korea.

While she's celebrating the 20th anniversary of her debut this year by taking of the role in “Phantom” once again, she's also broadening her horizons by playing Empress Myeongseong for “The Last Empress,” which celebrates its 25th year of being staged this year.

“I lose myself while switching between the two roles that are so different,” she said, laughing. Acting as a graceful and dignified empress on one stage and practicing the lines for a bright and bubbly country girl makes her feel “a little embarrassed,” but she says that’s the least of her worries.

“It takes more effort to immerse into a character whose age is so different from my real age,” she said. “There are so many things I would like to learn from myself 20 years ago. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and the audiences’ expectations have become so high that my best is taken for granted. I miss those days when I didn’t know anything but I was still forgiven no matter what I did.”

Another difficulty comes with the disparity between her own personality and that of Christine’s, which she says has been her “homework” during the whole time she’s been playing the character.

“When the Phantom takes his mask off, Christine is so shocked that she runs away,” she said. “But that scene just goes against my personality so much that it’s hard — even more so because the actors for the Phantom such as Kyuhyun, Park Eun-tae, Jeon Dong-seok and Kai are so handsome [laughs]. I know that it’s only right that she runs away for the desperate aria, but I can’t help thinking, ‘I would not have run away.’ There’s a scene afterward where she shows her true heart. I didn’t do that scene well last season, so this time, I’m determined to make it work.”

Kim So-hyun plays the role of Christine, a young aspiring opera singer, in the musical ″Phantom.″ [EMK MUSICAL COMPANY]

The two Christines of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Phantom” are quite different too, she added.

“There are a lot of songs in ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ but they don’t really need much technique,” she said. “They just need the slightest touch of vocals but ‘Phantom’ has a lot of words and the songs are quite demanding technique-wise, so I would say that they’re harder [...] She’s never still and always runs around dancing. It’s really physically demanding.”

Just as Christine’s encounter with the Phantom opened up a new level of music for her, Kim says that she had her very own Phantom in her life — her mother. A singer can sing on her own, but she cannot be a singer unless there is someone else to listen to her and tell her the things that she cannot hear.

“I never actually imagined that singing would be a job for me,” she said. “I listened to songs so much ever since I was inside my mother’s belly so I hated singing when I was young. She insisted that I had to go to an arts high school, but I didn’t budge. But when she gave me a CD of ‘La Bohème’ and told me to give it just one listen, I was mesmerized.

“I started singing and felt I couldn’t waste time sleeping, so I sang at night under my duvet. Even now, every hour before the performance, she helps me practice my vocals. If she doesn't like something, she will tell me even if it’s five minutes before I have to go on. One day, the house manager told me I had a stalker. Apparently, a middle-aged woman was coming to the lobby every day and mumbling things while watching me on the monitor. It turned out to be my mother who’s been so worried about me. Wouldn’t this make her a true Phantom? [laughs].”

While listening to “La Bohème,” Kim dreamt of becoming an opera singer. She was simply “trying out” when she first auditioned for "The Phantom of the Opera," because it was just four days before a flight she had booked to Italy, where a director promised to help her debut. She pushed back her plans to go to Italy and asked the director to wait until “The Phantom of the Opera” finished, but when it did, she couldn’t leave.

“I fell in love with musical,” she said. “I joined ‘West Side Story’ straight after and since then, I’ve never taken a break.”

But after 10 years of true love, Kim hit a slump. For the first time in her career she felt like giving up, but once again, “The Phantom of the Opera” was there to help — this time, introducing her to her now-husband, actor Son Jun-ho.

“It was a time when every word, every line was difficult for me,” she said. “And when a person eight years younger than me asked me to marry him, I thought he took me to be 'easy.’ But he was such a nice person except for the age difference, so I took a leap of faith. When I gave birth, I was scared that I might have to retire — then I overcame the slump. I came back to work as soon as I gave birth like I was debuting again. I’m grateful for Jun-ho, who dedicated himself to raising our baby for the first couple of years.”

Musical actor Kim So-hyun [KIM HYUN-DONG]

If her marriage and birth helped her overcome her 10-year slump, it was ironically Covid-19 that helped her overcome her second slump after another 10 years.

“I was distanced from the stage against my will,” she said. “They say you’re bound to run into a slump on the 10th and 20th years, no matter what it is that you do. But when it came down to a situation where the very next day became uncertain, you have no choice but to give it your best as if every performance may be your last. It brings me to tears every time to see the audience wearing masks.”

She’s had highs and lows in the musical industry, but her love for opera has not faltered. She says these days, she’s brought to tears just listening to an opera prelude.

“A musical is actually not that different [from an opera], because they’re both plays performed through music,” she said. “There’s actually a charm in communicating with the Korean audience through my mother tongue. And there’s the fact that most female lead characters die [laughs]. I died hundreds of times while I was playing ‘Elisabeth’ ‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Anna Karenina.’ It feels more natural to die [in a play] now. Christine feels unfinished because she doesn’t die [laughs].”

Thinking back to 20 years ago when she first debuted, she says she envies the 20-year-old Kim So-hyun “who had no fear.”

“I must keep young,” she said. “I have to act out Christine. I’m not trying to look ridiculously young, but I need to feel her with a purer heart. And to do so, I have to enjoy today, because today will be my youngest day.”